Engineering Enlightenment: Part One
In 2011 I shifted to spending most of my time in Hong Kong, and since that point I’ve met an amazing collection of fascinating people here – some HongKongese, some mainland Chinese, and some Westerners or other Asians passing through. Hong Kong is the sort of place where all sorts of folks will pass through for hours, days, weeks, months, or years – and occasionally stay a lifetime. Among the more stimulating encounters I’ve had here, was my intersection with Jeffery Martin and Mikey Siegel, and their work (in collaboration with Gino Yu) on
- the psychological and physiological nature of “enlightenment” (or as they often call it, “extraordinary states of well being” or “persistent non-symbolic states”)
- methods for working toward enlightened states of consciousness using neurofeedback and other “brain hacking” technologies.
I learned a lot from talking to Jeffery and Mikey about their research, and was very impressed by their rigorous, clear-minded scientific approach to these confusing and multidimensionally thorny topics.
I was entranced by Jeffery’s tales of his travels around the world interviewing rafts of different enlightened people, interviewing them and trying to understand their commonalities and differences. And I was intrigued by Mikey’s hacking of EEG game controllers, with a goal of turning them into neurofeedback-based enlightenment engines. We have increasing knowledge of which parts of the brain are differentially active in enlightened minds – so that (or so the idea goes) using EEG equipment to visualize one’s brain activity in real-time, one can nudge one’s brain-state gradually toward enlightenment, using the visualization as a rough measure of one’s incremental progress. There were also some fascinating experiments with noninvasive electrical stimulation of the brain, via carefully placed electrodes, which in some subjects resulted in extraordinary shifts of subjective experience.
We had many deep discussions about the various possible routes to extraordinary, enlightened states of mind. Gino Yu, our mutual collaborator and the one who introduced me to Jeffery and Mikey, was pursuing research on “enlightenment via digital media” – creating video games and multimedia experiences designed to open peoples’ minds. I tended toward a frustration with the intrinsic limitations of the human brain, and a propensity to think about mind uploads, AGIs or brain implants. Jeffery and Mikey staked out an intermediate ground of sorts – focusing attention on using advanced technology like neurofeedback and brain stimulation to nudge human brains into better states than their usual ones. Of course there is no contradiction between these approaches; there are many possible paths to many possible kinds of mind expansion.
Jeffery and Mikey have since moved on from Hong Kong, and since their research is still underway, they haven’t taken the time to publish their ideas and results yet – though in late 2011 Jeffery gave some great talks on these themes,
- This one at the Asia Consciousness Festival
- This one at TedX Hong Kong
- This panel discussion at Humanity+ Hong Kong
So I thought it would be interesting to do an H+ Magazine interview with the two of them, as a way of getting some of their thinking further spread into the global memeplex, even while their research is still in a fairly early formative stage.
Both Jeffery and Mikey have the cross-disciplinary backgrounds you’d expect from folks involved in this sort of research. Jeffery is a software technologist, serial entrepreneur, scholar, author and educator, with a psychology PhD and interests and achievements spanning many fields including: leadership and management, politics, psychology, computer science, spirituality and religion, electronic media, and personal transformation. His co-authored novel “The Fourth Awakening” explores enlightenment-based themes in a poetic yet rigorous way. When I met him in Hong Kong he was lecturing in the School of Design at Hong Kong Poly U, as well as pursuing various technology/media business projects, writing, and, of course, studying enlightenment.
Mikey graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a BS in Computer Engineering, and then did his Masters at the MIT Media Lab with social robotics legend Cynthia Breazeal. A first-class robotics and general hardware tinkerer as well as a deep thinker, his current interests center around technology and consciousness – as he says, “I’m working to create tools that facilitate people’s own path toward higher consciousness, self-realization, awakening, however it is you may describe the experience of transcendence.”
As my interview with Jeffery and Mikey became fairly lengthy, due to the depth of the concepts involved and their broad implications, I have split it into three separate articles, to appear on three consecutive days: what you are reading is the first.
Jeffery, I know you’ve been spending a lot of time in recent years studying “enlightened” people — or as you’ve sometimes referred to it, “people who are continually in a state of extraordinary well being.” As I understand it you’ve traveled the world visiting a host of different people apparently possessing persistent “enlightened” states of mind. I’d be thrilled for you to share some of your findings about these people with our readers. What common factors distinguish these individuals? What makes them different from the rest of us?
That’s a great question Ben, and of course it goes to the heart of all of our research. The reality of course is that there are many things that differentiate them from the rest of the population. This is one of those types of questions that can be answered on many different levels, from the level of personality to the level of brain function. Perhaps the most relevant level is how it changes one’s experience of the world. It seems to bring with it a deep sense of inner peace and also a sense of overall completeness. Now, it’s important to note that this really depends upon where someone is that in regards to the overall process. One of the most important things that we’ve learned is that this notion of enlightenment or ”extraordinary well being” is not a binary state. It’s not something that is simply turned on and then is the same for everyone. There’s actually is a range or continuum — and where someone falls along it determines the experience that they have in relation to the world.
Yeah, that makes total sense. But still, there must be some commonalities, regardless of where someone falls on the continuum. Continuum or not, all these folks you’re studying are qualitatively different from, say, the average teacher I had in high school.
What all of these people have in common, regardless of where they fall on the continuum, is the experience of a fundamental and profound shift in what it feels like to be them. In other words — a significant change in their sense of self. Overall, this seems to involve a shift away from a tightly focused or highly individuated sense of self to something else. What that something else is, often relates to ideology or beliefs the individuals had before this happened to them. So for example if someone is a Buddhist it may show up as spaciousness. If someone is a Christian it may show up as a feeling of God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit indwelling them. As individuals progress downs continuum often even this falls away, but the reality is very few make it that far. If they do, however, they generally find themselves in a place that is beyond the visceral experience of their previous ideologies and belief systems.
I wonder about the extent to which the actual experience of enlightenment differs depending on the person’s belief system before their transformation, versus the difference just lying in the way they describe their enlightenment? A Christian may describe their experience in terms of the Holy Spirit, whereas a Buddhist may describe it in terms of the pearly nothingness – but actually their experiences might be quite similar, apart from the way they label it and connect it into their prior belief systems…
The psychological nature of the experience may be more invariant than the language used to describe it – do you think?
In some respects, yes. There are huge, fairly universal impacts on things like emotions. When someone first crosses over, if they enter the low or beginning part of the continuum, there’s an immediate emotional benefit. Events that occur in their life still produce emotion in them but these emotions exert much less influence over their moment to moment the experience. One of the ways this manifests is via emotions lasting less time.
As one approaches the far end of the continuum, negative emotions fall away and positive emotions become increasingly highlighted. Eventually these individuals reach a point were they are only experiencing one highly positive emotion.
As they move even further down the continuum and encounter the place where the deeper components of their previous ideologies fall away, emotion falls away entirely. This may sound troubling, but it is replaced with an even greater degree of well-being. And, remember, these were individuals who were already experiencing a level of well-being that is far greater than what most people can imagine.
Another question that often pops into my mind when I listen to you talk about this stuff is: how would you define a “persistent non-symbolic state”?
Personally I’m tempted to conceive of it in terms of “addiction.” I think of addiction, crudely, as wanting something not because of its current appropriateness, but because one had it before. When Buddhists say “non-attachment”, I tend to think “non-addiction”, broadly speaking. So in this vein, I’m tempted to think of “non-symbolic consciousness” as “the absence of addiction to any particular symbol.” That is: obviously enlightened minds can do symbol-manipulation. But maybe they don’t get addicted to particular symbols, and particular habits and patterns of symbol manipulation. Instead they use symbols as appropriate, just like they use utensils to eat as appropriate, and then put them down when they’re done.
Anyway that’s my own — maybe very incomplete, silly or eccentric — way of conceiving “non-symbolic consciousness” … but I’m wondering about yours, since you’ve obviously thought about it a lot more!
This is a very interesting view, and certainly one way to view it. Personally, I think of symbolic consciousness more as a habit that forms from around age 2-3 onward, and is strongly reinforced by society. Though certainly there must be reinforcement from the reward centers in the brain involved, making your reference to addiction relevant…but I think more in a downstream kind of way.
I define a persistent non-symbolic state as a persistent shift in an individual’s sense of self away from a strong sense of individualization, and towards something else. That something else if often ideologically driven. So for a Christian it might be towards a feeling of union with God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. For a Buddhist it might be towards a sense of spaciousness or pure consciousness, again, depending on their sect. For an atheist it might be more towards the feeling of greater connectedness to nature.
As this sense of a strongly individuated sense of self becomes less prevelant, other changes accompany it. We’ve classified these along in the domains of cognition (thinking), affect (emotion), perception and memory. Changes in cognition, for example, initially involve a decrease in the ability to self-referential thought to pull the individual in. On the far end of the continuum, it seems to involve an absence of these thoughts altogether. In between there is a kind of fading out.
Understood — that makes total sense to me. I’m also reminded somehow of Ray Bradbury’s quote on symbolism in writing..
I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to get the subconscious to do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural. During a lifetime, one saves up information which collects itself around centers in the mind; these automatically become symbols on a subliminal level and need only be summoned in the heat of writing.
Similarly, it may be that folks in a persistent non-symbolic state are, in some sense, doing implicit symbolic inference — like Bradbury in his state of unconscious creative flow — without self-consciously creating or manipulating symbols. The relation between enlightened states and creative flow states is another big, deep, tricky topic, of course!
This could absolutely be the case, certainly I’ve speculated along these lines as well. This is a great quote that I was unaware of, thanks for passing it along!
Shifting gears a bit – can you say a little bit about what got you interested in this area of research in the first place?
I was researching well-being. We’d come across data in our experiments that suggested that it might be linked to the degree and type of emotional and cognitive release an individual could achieve. Over several years, a pattern emerged that seemed to be a continuum. On ‘low’ or far left end of the continuum, if you want to think of it as a visual line, individuals seemed to be deeply embedded in their thoughts and emotions. Their sense of self was almost entirely constructed within those internal experiences. As one progressed to the ‘higher’ or right side of the model, this became less true. After quite a bit of research, we reached the point where we were able to match people up to where they were on the continuum, provide the appropriate tool to move them ‘further along,’ and so forth. But eventually we hit a point where we weren’t making any progress.
At that point we started looking for exemplars that might indicate where the far end of the continuum lied. In the end, only one group of individuals made claims that seemed to fit so we began to research them. This is the group that we’ve been referring to as enlightened or as having extraordinary well-being. As our research on them progressed it became clear that specific brain regions might be responsible for these persistent changes in how these individuals experience the world. There didn’t seem to be any reliable methods that induced it, so we began to explore neurofeedback and also neurostimulation technologies in an effort to see if we could find a reliable way to get people there. That’s the effort that we are most engaged in right now.
What about you, Mikey? Your previous research was on social robotics – the neurofeedback of enlightenment is a bit of a shift. What motivated the change in research direction?
My work in social human-robot interaction focused on the ways in which robots can influence human belief and behavior. For me this ranged from maximizing the donation a robot could solicit, to increasing car safety by interactively modifying driving behavior. This propelled me down a broader line of inquiry: what is the most profound way in which technology can influence human experience? The answer I came to was maximizing well-being. That answer led to a more philosophical question: what is the absolute pinnacle of human well-being? This led me down the path of researching the relationship between technology and spiritual enlightenment.
Much of my own interest in your work comes out of various experiences I’ve had myself, getting into unusual states of mind via meditation, and various other practices. But I wouldn’t consider myself anywhere remotely near “enlightened” – though I’ve definitely had some pretty extraordinary states of pretty extraordinary well-being here and there, including some I couldn’t come close to describing in words.
So, getting back to what I was asking about before — this makes me wonder: What are your thoughts on the general, habitual differences — neurally, cognitive-process-wise, and in terms of subjective state of experience — between A) “enlightened” people, B) highly experienced meditators, C) ordinary schmucks like me?
Well, I wish the “ordinary schmucks” of this world had even a fraction of your brainpower and insight! Obviously, this is a huge topic, because there are large quantities of research into all three of these groups at this point, though more so for the last two groups. Let me narrow the question down a bit. I would say that one of the difficult things in our research is separating out the effects of meditation from the underlying “Persistent Non-Symbolic Consciousness” experience. Meditation produces all kinds of interesting cognitive process effects that are often not related at all to PNS. Just the process of separating these out took quite a while for us, because initially virtually all of the neuroscience research that we had to work with involved meditation. For political reasons within the academy, this is still pretty much true for research that is being publically done. Academic work on PNS is centered around meditators because that’s their only hope of getting it published. The private research is typically the opposite, though, so it has been incredibly helpful in determining what are meditation effects and what relates to the underlying PNS changes. We’ve also tried to send subjects who aren’t meditators into the public projects so they have comparison data and can start, at least privately, thinking about the differences.
But how about people who aren’t enlightened masters or regular meditators, but still get into amazingly great states of mind from time to time. Do you think ordinary folks can sometimes get into the same states of mind that characterize the “ongoing peak state” of PNS that you’re talking about?
That is, I wonder to what extent these enlightened states are totally beyond everyday peoples’ experience, versus just being something that ordinary people can’t hold onto after they reach it?
This is a very difficult question. In our research we chose to focus on individuals with persistent forms of the experience. There has been research into temporary forms of it, but we haven’t focused at all on that. I don’t think we really know how accessible this is within the general population at this point. It may be that certain genetics variations are required for it, for example. We estimate that perhaps as many as 1% of the population in the developed countries we study have a persistent form of the experience. It could be that there is something special about these people.
However, I would say that we’ve done a huge amount of psychological, lifestyle, etc. research into them. For the most part they are a cross-section of the general population. This seems to occur across all ages, socio-economic levels, education levels, and so forth. Our sample includes people who were devoutly religious and completely atheist. So, there may be some hope for all of us!
I should note that there are a few biases in our sample. It is about 70% male, 98% white, and highly educated. We’ve tried several sampling procedures to collect new research populations to try to correct these biases. I spent last year in Asia, and it became clear during that time there are plenty of Asian subjects. We started in the US, Canada and Europe so our initial racial bias wasn’t too surprising. The gender and education biases have held up no matter what we do to try and eliminate them, though. So there might be something to them in relation to your question. Overall we have around 1200 subjects in our research participant database, and we’re not adding to it. We have a backup list of potential subjects that is quite a bit larger.
You’ve mentioned a bias favoring research on regular meditators, versus general research on extraordinary well-being and PNS. What do you think are the views on the sort of research you’re doing in the mainstream neuroscience community, overall?
Academia is just starting to scratch at these areas with the surge in meditation research, but they are still refusing to talk about the reason why meditation was invented. Its not for reducing stress, or depression or anxiety, rather, these are byproducts of a much deeper, more profound shift which is available. It’s wonderful to use meditation as a tool in whatever way it can benefit humanity, but a fundamental part of the picture is being ignored. One of the reasons it’s avoided is because the nature of the experience is characterized by its sharp contrast to our normal reality. Its just really hard/impossible to relate to, explain, and understand. This is in contrast to something like depression or anxiety which can be described within the normal range of human experience.
Another problem is that the phenomenon resists scientific verification, largely for historical/cultural reasons. Because the experience is often deeply embedded within a religious or spiritual belief system, it can be hard to talk about the underlying phenomenon. But Jeffery and others have done great work moving past this, and there is no reason PNS couldn’t be studied and characterized much like other psychological conditions. But like anything, science can never say ‘what’ PNS is, it is only one lens through which we can conceptualize it.
I largely concur with this. Ultimately there’s only a handful of scientists working in this area, and it is largely outside the system. Funding is generally from interested individuals rather than institutions. There are no professorships, tenure track positions, significant grants, etc. Generally the things that would make a young academic feel like this with a path to a good future career are all absent, and that is a problem. We’ve worked hard to make some progress in this area but there is still a lot that remains to be done. Where I may differ with Mikey is that I have a slightly more physicalist approach to it all at the present moment. I think it can be quantified in standard science and we’re working hard on that.
TO BE CONTINUED…
TUNE IN LATER THIS WEEK FOR PART TWO OF THE INTERVIEW